July 26, 2014

The Coolest Thing I Ever Saw: The 1998 Leonid Meteor Shower

Late 1998 was a busy time for me. As a Staff Sergeant in the US Air Force, I was old enough to have some responsibility in the form of supervising my own load crew but still low enough down the totem pole that virtually all of supervision sat squarely above me. I was stationed at Eielson Air Force base in Alaska with the 18th Fighter Squadron as a Aircraft Armament Systems specialist, a fancy way of saying that I loaded bombs. When I wasn’t destroying things, Astronomy was my main passion. Astronomy in Alaska was really a seasonal sport; winter was blistering cold, down to -60 degrees Fahrenheit and summer was constant daylight. This limited dark sky observing to about two month windows around either equinoxes.
This meant that I would jump at any chance to head for warmer climes. Not to say that star gazing in Alaska isn’t fantastic; the Northern Lights are awesome up close and personnal and I’ll never forget the week that comet Hyakutake went circumpolar and thus was visible all night. Still, you get tired of playing such games as “on what date will I see the first star/planet?” in the summer time, and look forward to real dark skies. Thus I had anticipated our squadrons’ first deployment to Kuwait.
Not that I could tote any equipment, though. We were living in tents, and I opted to not bring my $1,000+ dollar binocs. This means I would be limited to naked eyeobserving. Plus, most military bases are over lit, although overseas and especially combat bases, this isn’t always the case. A friend of mine once told me he had never seen the stars as brightly as he had at Bagram airfield in Afganistan, where any floodlights would draw sniper fire.
And so I made the best of the situation; I gave impromtu sky lessons when ever I could, and set up silly personal challenges like spotting Jupiter before sunset between arming jets at the end of runway. But nothing prepared me for the meteor shower that was to come.
I love meteor showers. Nothing else in astronomy is so immediate and publicly appealling, except perhaps eclipses and aurorae. Some of my earliest astronomical recollectionsare being bundled up under the August sky watching the Perseids with my mom and brothers. Religous movements in the US have been atributed the great Leonid Storm of 1833.
And so it was with great trepidation I awaited the date of November 17th. I had been watching this particular shower from Alaska the past two years previous, and I knew the rate had been increasing from the usual 10 or so per hour into the 100s.
But that wasn’t the only thing transpiring around that date. Sadam was once again up to his old tricks, throwing the UN inspectors out of the country. A few days before we had got the word to respond in kind. Weloaded our aircraft and prepared for a nightime strike. It was the first time my load crew had been in combat, and excitement was high. I also mentioned to one of our F-16 pilots that an exploding Leonid fireball could easily be confused with anti-aircraft fire in the moonless skies over Bahgdad; it was later briefed to watch for this effect. But at the 11th hour, Saddam blinked, the bombs were downloaded, and life at Al Jabber Air Base went back to normal. I remeber having fun with the pilot’s night vision gogles behind the operations building. With them, the M31 and M33 galaxies were easy naked eye objects.
The real fireworks were to come the following night. I hadn’t packed any optical gear for our deployment and was itching for some action, astronomy style. Eagerly, I waited for my shift to end. We had three load crews on the swing shift, and had decided early on that rather than taking days off, we would rotate late and early nights. I silently prayed that a broken weapons system would’nt keep me until sunrise.
Departing work at midnight, I quickly made my way towards a preselected, semi-dark sky site; a field behind our tent city. A few opening flashes from the desert sky led me to believe we were indeed in for quite an event. Even causal late night pedestrians were taking notice and watching the sky, in of itself a good sign. I settled in for an all nighter on a prepositioned cot in the desert darkness.
Meteor rates picked up almost imediately. My usual rule of thumb when meteor observing in the early AM is that I need an hourly observed rate of at least ten per hour to keep me interested (and awake!) or I pack it in… I surpassed that in the first few opening minutes. by two AM, rates were already several hundred per hour, with several intense fireballs. I laid back and thought of the muted history this meteor shower had been witness to… in 1833, men and women on the American Eastern seaboard awoke in the early AM to a sky totally awash with meteors. Some believed that the apocalypse was nigh, or only awaiting sunrise. Churches were packed for those awaiting last minute salvation… would I witness such an event?
As the radiant rose and rates quickened, I was joined by our commanding major. We watched as fireballs lit up the landscape. I explained how the meteor rates always pickup in the AM, that the Earth is facing forward in its orbit and scooping out a 7,000+ mile hole in space. “The front of a cars’ windshield always gets the bugs…” is an apt analogy I like to use.
Towards sunrise, the final act came. Meteors were coming at a rate of one every two to three seconds, and true counting was almost impossible. I remembered accounts of the 1966 shower people gave of having a peception of Earth’s movement through space, much like the bridge shots of stars wizzing by in the chessy old Star Trek reruns. As I went for my morning jog, I noted seeing flashes even after sunrise! My guest-timate would be that we reached a local zenithal hourly rate of 900-1,000 meteors per hour.
To this day, the 1998 Leonids stands as one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I still meteor watch, and every year, I set my alarm for early AM, and clear skies willing, venture out into the cold November dawn…and noting the handful of meteors that slice the darkness, I remember that night ablaze under Kuwaiti skies.

Comments

  1. Daniel says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article The Coolest Thing I Ever Saw: The 1998 Leonid Meteor Shower, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  2. Mark Egan says:

    Sorry to correct you, but this happened in 1999, not 1998.

    See:

    http://www.amsmeteors.org/leo99update.html and

    http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/leo99/story.html

    The 1998 show produced an outburst of about 300 per hour over Asia: this one was notable because many of the meteors were very bright; see:

    http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/leo98/trip.html

    I saw the 2001 shower: 500 per hour from under hazy skies in Louisiana.

    I’m glad you got to see such an inspirational event. (By the way, you can top this: go see a total eclipse of the sun.)

    And by the way, thank you for your fine and honorable service to our country.

  3. webmaster says:

    I was in Kuwait in late 98 when this occured; unfortunately, I was in Italy in 99 and clouded out for the next year. My estimate was just a rough guess as to what we saw towards sunrise; I’ve never seen another estimate from the Middle East from that morning, although I’d be interested in seeing one!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 1,000 meteors an hour, with numerous bright fireballs every few seconds. For my full account, click here.I still wonder how manyreports have been made along that same latitude. About a year later, I [...]

  2. [...] this stream is prone to well documented bursts in access of 1,000 ZHR every 33 years or so. The 1998 storm was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen! The years leading up to 2034…(i.e., [...]

  3. [...] 30th, 1591. An outburst of the Leonid meteor shower was also seen on 1602 similar to the one we witnessed in 1998. These left an indelible impression on the literature of the day. Mr. Levy cites primarily [...]

  4. [...] generate a paltry 10 per hour but are prone to great +1,000 per hour outbursts every 33 years, as happened in 1998-99 and may occur again in 2032-33. What you are actually seeing when you see a Perseid meteor is [...]

  5. [...] gibbous phase, and the radiant was low to the northeast during the outburst. This suggests that the Zenithal Hourly Rate, or the amount of meteors an observer would have seen under ideal conditions, may have potentially [...]

  6. [...] We witnessed the 1998 Leonids from the deserts of Kuwait while stationed at Al Jabber Air Base. It was easily one of the best meteor displays we ever saw, with a ZHR reaching in access of 500 per hour before dawn. It was intense enough that fireballs behind us would often light up the foreground like camera flashes! [...]

  7. [...] on those undocumented passages. One possible strike against a “meteor storm” similar to the 1998 Leonids that we witnessed from Kuwait is the fact that the “Cams” have never been recorded before. [...]

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